Captain Carling embarks on final voyage

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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

Rugby Union Correspondent

If elements among the Twickenham crowd have been equivocal about some of the rugby England have played this season, even the grumpiest curmudgeon among this afternoon's 78,000-strong host will scarcely forbear to cheer Will Carling when he stands for the last time at the helm against Ireland.

A nautical metaphor is appropriate for a season in which England, even though they can end it with a Triple Crown, have sailed through persistently turbulent waters. Jack Rowell, their manager, has been careful to say in his defence that he warned the Rugby Football Union it would be so, but he never thought it would be quite like this.

The question Rowell cannot fairly answer, because he is a partial witness, is what constitutes a good season for England, the difficulty being that even when three-fifths of the team are first-season initiates the public expectation appears to be worse than ever. But however unreasonable, England - management and players - should take this as a compliment.

A decade ago such English progress towards a Triple Crown would have been greeted with a combination of ecstasy and incredulity. Now, as a result of the phenomenal success of the eight years of Carling's captaincy, it is merely par for the course. Grand Slams, three in the Nineties, have become so commonplace that they seem to be a requirement rather than an agreeable but optional extra.

The latter was how the Welsh viewed it in the Seventies, however presumptuous aspects of their supporters' conduct may have been, and it is entirely possible if not probable that this post-World Cup period of rapid reconstruction will fit England for further post-Carling years of success. In that circumstance, the Triple Crown is an agreeable, but optional, extra.

"I thought if we lost at Murrayfield and beat Ireland this could have been a reasonable season; that's my genuine view on where this rebuilding season is," Rowell remarked. His intention is that England will never again be confronted with such a one-off turnover of players as has occurred this season.

"If we are going to blood new people in the team there should be one or two a year," he added. "This year there were six or seven, getting on for half a team that's new, and that's why I'm very pleased with the way they've worked through the season."

This should not be regarded as special pleading on England's behalf. With their gigantic player base they do not need or deserve any, and begging Ireland's pardon, however callow England may be there is no logical reason to anticipate anything but a Triple Crown.

This is how the Irish prefer it, even if the relentless down-playing of their chances by their manager, Pat Whelan, has seemed ever so slightly exaggerated. Man for man Ireland hardly compare but it was ever thus and England's great shortcoming this season - and even, arguably, against Scotland - has been that the whole has been less than the sum of the parts.

So for Rowell this is a game that is best approached in trepidation, a mood not lightened when Mike Catt limped out of training yesterday with recurring groin strain before insisting he would be fit. "The first thing we have to do is subdue the Irish," he said. "No doubt they will come out against England feeling second favourites and feeling they are going to do something about it. That's when they are very dangerous."

Carling and others among the seniors whose England careers are inevitably on the wane need no reminding of this. Two years ago presumption of English victory was as easy to make as it is now and only Geoghegan, Field, Popplewell and McBride survive from the Irishmen who inflicted Carling's only Five Nations defeat at Twickenham.

But which Irish team we will see today: the pale imitation who collapsed to a record defeat by France four weeks ago or the banshees who dumped the Welsh on their return to Dublin? Curiously Murray Kidd, the New Zealander whose coaching contract is up for renewal after this match, said he derived encouragement from the Paris mismatch.

This, it has to be said, is the international language of coaching: eternal optimism coupled with eternal excuses. "I'll say again, whether we like it or not we are rebuilding this year," Rowell said. "We haven't imposed ourselves at Twickenham and the sooner we get back to it the better - which would add up to giving the captain an immense send-off, which he deserves." Aye aye, cap'n.

ENGLAND v IRELAND

at Twickenham

M Catt Bath 15 S Mason Orrell

J Sleightholme Bath 14 S Geoghegan Bath

W Carling Harlequins, capt 13 M Field Malone

J Guscott Bath 12 J Bell Northampton

R Underwood Leicester 11 N Woods Blackrock College

P Grayson Northampton 10 D Humphreys London Irish

M Dawson Northampton 9 N Hogan Terenure College, capt

G Rowntree Leicester 1 N Popplewell Newcastle

M Regan Bristol 2 A Clarke Northampton

J Leonard Harlequins 3 P Wallace Blackrock College

M Johnson Leicester 4 G Fulcher Constitution

G Archer Bristol 5 J Davidson Dungannon

L Dallaglio Wasps 6 D Corkery Constitution

D Richards Leicester 8 V Costello St Mary's College

B Clarke Bath 7 D McBride Wasps

Referee: E Murray (Scotland). Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC1).

Five Nations Table

P W D L F A Pts

1 Scotland 4 3 0 1 60 56 6

2 France 3 2 0 1 74 41 4

3 England 3 2 0 1 51 39 4

4 Ireland 3 1 0 2 50 78 2

5 Wales 3 0 0 3 46 67 0

Results: 20 Jan: France 15 England 12; Ireland 10 Scotland 16. 3 Feb: England 21 Wales 15; Scotland 19 France 14. 17 Feb: France 45 Ireland 10; Wales 14 Scotland 16. 2 March: Scotland 9 England 18; Ireland 30 Wales 17.

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